The Thornton Family’s Fredericksburg Mansion – Part I

My Thornton Family History

The Thornton Family is one of Virginia’s distinguished Colonial families. A large branch of my family tree includes Thornton ancestors and spans 24 generations. My Thornton family members date back to 1314 in Bolling Hall, Bradford, Yorkshire, England when Robert DeBolling (my 16th paternal great-grandfather–Generation 2) married Elizabeth DeThornton in 1337 before the two surnames were shortened to Bolling and Thornton.

Fall Hill–Home of the Thornton’s

Fall Hill and the Thorntons

Fall Hill is an early 1700s plantation located on 8,000 acres of land established and patented by Francis Thornton I (1657-1727) around 1720.  It is located near the falls on the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia.   Various members of the Thornton family lived at Fall Hill until 2003 (about 300 years). The present house was built in 1790 by Francis Thornton V (1760–1836) when he married Sally Innes and is in the present-day town of Fredericksburg.  The architectural design supports the 1790 construction.

Fall Hill MansionThe Thornton family ran a grist mill on the Rappahannock River. Stories handed down over generations say that Francis Thornton III (1711–1749) built the house on Fall Hill to escape the heat of the original house that sat in the lower elevations near the river.

Francis Thornton III married Frances Gregory, daughter of Mildred Washington Gregory, aunt, and godmother of George Washington. He served as a burgess, a trustee of Fredericksburg, and Colonel of the Spotsylvania Militia. In 1749, Fall Hill was inherited by Colonel Thornton’s son, Francis Thornton IV (1737–1794). However, he and his wife, Ann Thompson, maintained their primary residence at The Falls.


Francis Thornton V 1767-1836

Francis Thornton V was a Justice of the Peace in Spotsylvania County. Francis V was the last of the direct line of the Thorntons of Fall Hill plantation.  His son, James Innes Thornton, was born at Fall Hill. He moved to Alabama, became its third secretary of state, and established his own plantation, Thornhill. Francis Thornton V died in 1836 without a will. For nine years, until the estate was settled in 1845, Fall Hill was maintained by family slaves. Ultimately, the estate was deeded to Dr. John Roberts Taylor (1803-1884) in 1845. Dr. Taylor was the father-in-law of my 13th cousin, Butler Brayne Thornton.   It was Dr. Taylor who renovated the home in the 1840s.

Its proximity to the Rappahannock River made Fall Hill a strategic point during the Fredericksburg Campaign of the Civil War. Fortifications were built along the river at the house to protect the crossing. The breastworks were built by General Robert E. Lee’s soldiers.  According to a long-time resident, Butler Franklin, at one point Lee ordered the mansion destroyed by cannon fire so he could better see the approach of the Union Army across the river. The house survived because the Union Army advance changed its direction.

In 1870 Dr. Taylor’s son, Murray Forbes Taylor, married Butler Brayne Thornton (my 13th cousin), a descendant of Francis Thornton V, which again brought Fall Hill into the Thornton family. Taylor and his wife lived with Doctor Taylor at Fall Hill from 1875 to 1877. In 1877, Murray Thornton and his wife Butler Brayne (my 6th cousin) moved to California where Taylor managed the estate of Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of William Randolph Hearst) at San Simeon, California. To show her gratitude to Murray Taylor when he retired from his job at San Simeon in 1908, Mrs. Hearst purchased Fall Hill for $25,000 as a gift for him. It was Mrs. Hearst’s wish that Butler Brayne Thornton Robinson Franklin inherit the estate.

Except for that period from 1845–1870, Fall Hill has been in possession of the Thornton family. Butler Franklin, who died in 2003 at the age of 104, was the last of the Thorntons to own the property.  Fall Hill was added to the National Register of Historic Places in June 1973.

15 thoughts on “The Thornton Family’s Fredericksburg Mansion – Part I

  1. I am curious if you have any information on a George W Thornton. Probably from the early 1800s. I am aware of a book that was owned by him and am wondering where he fits into the story. The book was previously owned by Corbin Washington who was a nephew of George Washington and at some point came into George W Thornton’s possession. Thanks.


    • Yes, there are two George Washington Thornton’s from the early 1800’s and both from the Fredericksburg,VA area. Both men were first cousins of George Washington. One owned Rumford Plantation in Stafford County and died around 1815 and the other one his grandson was born in VA but at an early age moved to Alabama. Both were my great-grandfathers and I wrote about them in my book—Washington’s Bloodline; The Long-Lost Branch of the Washington Family Tree, by Mary Shawn Russell.


    • Jonathan,
      While I can’t help you with George W. Thornton, the book you mention may contain a clue to help in research from a different angle that may bear fruit.
      Corbin is an unusual first name, but it is possible it came from the Corbin family.
      The Corbin’s owned Moss Neck Manor and were, at one time, the wealthiest family in the Rappahannock River valley. There was a local expression, to be “rich as a Corbin.”
      I think it is pretty much a given that the Corbins were acquainted with the Thorntons and Washingtons.
      Moss Neck is about 15-20 miles downriver from Fredericksburg. It is magnificent and in private hands.
      Perhaps research on the Corbins may help shed light on this mystery.


  2. Ms. Dickinson,
    First, I wish you success in your research.
    Contact the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg and visit the Virginiana Room if you are in the area. They can answer your questions.

    Second, you should be aware that Butler Brayne Thornton Robinson Franklin, who you referred to, was a woman, not a man.
    She was a magnificent Southern belle who blessed all who knew her.

    Third, the construction project you referred to took a small portion of the estate. The stone pillars at the entrance were broken up and rebuilt, I would guess, oh, 50 to 75 feet back from their original location.

    Fourth, relatives of Mrs. Franklin put the property up for sale roughly a decade ago. I regret being unable to identify the current owners. I vaguely recall something about the property being divided into 2 or 3 parcels.

    It is hoped someone with a genuine interest in historic preservation will acquire the property if the current owners are not so inclined. Destructive vultures with money abound.


    • I have sent out a query to see if I can identify the current owners of Fall Hill Mansion/Plantation. I haven’t been there, but this property sits adjacent to bridge and road construction–Fall Hill Avenue is being widened between the new Rappahannock Canal Bridge and Briscoe Lane just west of I-95. The construction project replaces the Fall Hill Avenue Bridge over I-95, and extends Mary Washington Blvd. to connect with Fall Hill Avenue. A portion of the road was reopened at the end of January 2017. The project is estimated to be completed by end of April 2017. I went to Google maps but was not successful in seeing the property in context to the construction. Fall Hill became part of the properties within the National Register of Historic Places June 18, 1973. Butler Franklin was the owner on this registration. He lived to be 104 and died in 2003. He was the last of the Thorntons to own the property according to to a wikipedia peace I read, but I also have contacted others to confirm Fall Hill’s status and will advise here as soon as I hear something. Thank you for your inquiry.


      • My father owns this property now and your ‘article’ is false. I wanted it removed or appropraitly describing the circumstances at this home. My mother and father lived at this property from before January 2001 into the present and you need to remove this. Explain your intentions with this information or I will contact appropriate administrators/authorities to have this removed and/or investigated


      • Thank you for contacting me and commenting on this post. Yes, I did reach out last year to try to learn (for the record) the names of the current owners. The post is a record of the property’s history and more importantly about the people who first built on it–my ancestors. If you would like to share the information with me that details what is inaccurate in the article, I will gladly follow up to make your sourced corrections. Thanks again.


      • Ms. Dickinson,
        I wish you continued success in your research.
        I did historic restoration for many years and twice did work (not of historical restoration nature) at Fall Hill, sometime in the late 1980s to early 1990s.
        Previously I became acquainted with Mrs. Franklin around 1980 through local political issues we were involved in. I can’t say I knew her well, but we had a number of pleasant conversations about history; some regarding her family and some of a more general nature. I, too, have an ancestral connection to the Washingtons. I am a descendant of Fielding Lewis who married George’s sister Betsy.
        As I said in my previous post, Mrs. Franklin was a true Southern belle, just as charming, without airs, perfectly-mannered and gracious as can be. She was also resourceful, very, very smart; and underneath that delightful exterior Mrs. Franklin was tougher than woodpecker lips.

        When I knew Mrs. Franklin, there were no other family members living there. it was her in the main house and another building was rented.
        This other building was interesting because of the addition on the back that contained the kitchen.
        When Mrs. Franklin and her husband, a diplomat, returned from abroad, they brought back things they purchased in a large wooden shipping container that was delivered to the home. After unloading it, they did not know what to do to this box. They stuck it on the back of this outbuilding and turned it into the kitchen for it. Mrs. Franklin enjoyed telling that story and it has always tickled me, for some reason.

        As I recall, during the War Between the States, It was not General Lee who ordered the home destroyed. I think Dr. Taylor told Lee to destroy it if he wished, but subsequent events made that unnecessary. it has been a long time since I read that story, so my memory could be faulty.
        I also recall that at the time of Mrs. Franklin’s death, Fall Hill was inherited by family members in Texas or somewhere distant; and a major reason they put it up for sale was they were unable to do anything with it at such a distance.

        There is a small, old family cemetery in town off Princess Anne Street surrounded by a brick wall.

        Were you to visit and stop in at the library, as I previously suggested, you will find more research on the Thorntons and related history than you could read in a month of Sundays. I urge you to call or email them, they will be pleased to answer questions you have. They do a marvelous job at this.


      • Thank you ever so much for your very personal and interesting add-on to my earlier post about the Thornton-Franklin families. I’m not sure how I lost this among my other correspondence, but I very deeply appreciate receiving comments that add new stories of value and interest to those people like me who are addicted to family genealogies.


  3. I am a researcher who has, for the past 10 years, been studying the portrait artist Matthew Harris Jouett (1788-1827) of Kentucky. He was said to have painted a miniature of “The Misses Thornton of Fredricksburg VA”. I am searching for an image of that miniature – presumably a double portrait (but perhaps it was 2 items) – and/or any information as to whom these ladies might have been. The miniature was supposedly painted c1810, and these ladies were said to be friends of his, which infers that they were born close to Jouett’s birth date.

    Any assistance greatly appreciated. RSVP to my e-mail acct:

    Thank you,


  4. Pingback: “Katina – Ghost Nanny of Fall Hill Plantation” – Part 2 | Our Heritage: 12th Century & Beyond

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